Visiting the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee

If you are a native-born Floridian you have several thoughts when someone mentions Chattahoochee. One, it is a major river that flows into the Apalachicola River which in turn separates the Florida panhandle into east and west Florida. Two, it is a town on Highway 90 near the Apalachicola River and three, it is the location of the state hospital that has been notorious for much of Florida’s history. As a kid, I can remember telling someone who had said something dumb that if they weren’t careful they might wind up in Chattahoochee. And I remember driving across the panhandle and seeing the hospital as we drove through and the family making jokes about driving fast to avoid staying long. I did understand that inmates in the hospital were deemed “crazy” so the place had all of the monikers humans put on that: nut house or loony bin and if in Florida you would just say Chattahoochee and other Floridians knew what you were referring to. Let’s take a look at our notorious mental institution and I will share a recent family story to bring it closer to home.

Chattahoochee Army Arsenal photo rc05088

Drawing of Mount Vernon Arsenal – Chattahoochee, FL, 1839; State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The location of the hospital was originally the Mount Vernon army arsenal built in 1832 that served as shelter from Indian attacks for nearby settlements during the Second Seminole War. During the War for Southern Independence (aka War Between the States, Civil War) it was a gathering place for Confederate militia and the place where several companies were mustered into Confederate service. The arsenal was donated by the federal government to Florida in 1868 to be used as a state penitentiary. As early as 1870, the facility was beginning to take “insane” residents. Once started, the trickle of indigent insane became a flood. Florida was slow to build the facility to sufficiently and humanely house the people being sent there, but eventually, they did. They were also slow to provide sufficient care but that too came in time.

In the 1960s, on one of my summer vacations, my paternal grandmother took me with her to visit one of her sisters-in-law that had tuberculosis and had not been taking her medications. If non-compliant with your meds you could be, and still can in some states, be confined for the course of medications that often last for 6 to 9 months. And in Florida at the time the go-to place was Chattahoochee. It wasn’t a cheerful place. Stark rooms with metal beds and industrial green walls. I remember expecting to hear screams or shrieks or some other noise reminiscent of my idea of a “nut house”. But none occurred. I did see a few folks wondering the hallways but they didn’t live up to my imagination. Years later I found out that one of my great-uncles had been sent there when he became ill and could not take care of himself and another uncle was sent there to dry out from alcohol. The first relative died there and was brought home to be buried and the second came out sober and stayed that way, as far as I know for the rest of his life. So, over the years, Chattahoochee served a number of functions in the care of Floridians.

About six months ago I began to work on one of my paternal lines that had proven difficult a few years back. As I’ve mentioned in prior posts (here and here) my paternal grandmother sat down with me on my initial interest in genealogy and shared everything she could remember that she was willing to share. In a trip to the cemetery in Holmes County where a lot of her ancestors had been buried, she pointed out a small gravestone with the name Lora Whittaker on it. It wasn’t far from some of her other relatives and she indicated that Lora was related but she seemed unsure, or was deliberately unclear, as to how exactly Lora was related.  She was sure Lora fit with the BRETTs somehow. I wrote all of that down but when I searched the family on the census, there was no Lora in the family. There were two girls I could find nothing on, Mary and Cornelia. I could find no marriage record and no other mention of either. I couldn’t even find a death record on my great-grandfather, their brother, Jessie Lee. So, I set the family aside and moved on to other lines.

 

Then I came back early this year. I laid out a plan of attack from my grandmother back. I noted all of the information I was missing and tried to identify possible sources for that information. I found my grandmother’s paternal grandfather’s (William Henry BRETT) probate records at Family Search and found that Lora was mentioned as receiving 40 acres in the distribution. This certainly indicated a relationship with William Henry BRETT, most likely a parent/child relationship. I tackled the census then. In 1900, I found her in Geneva County, AL as a recently married woman. With a bit of effort, I found her in 1910 at the State Hospital at Chattahoochee and settled the mystery of Cornelia in earlier census. Her full name was Lora Cornelia. In 1920, she was living with a half-sister and her family (William Henry, her father, was married twice) and in 1930 she was back in Chattahoochee. On Ancestry, I found someone who had a bit more information on Lora’s family. She had three sons, all born before she was admitted the first time but this distant cousin didn’t know any more than I did about Lora Cornelia’s confinement.

Since then I’ve done a bit of research on mental illness in the early 20th century and on Chattahoochee as an institution for the mentally ill. Not sure which one scared and saddened me the most. During the early 20th century “mental illness” resulting in confinement in an institution covered the gamut from learning disabilities, depressed victim of spousal or child abuse, difficulty in managing life skills (slow learner), post-traumatic stress disorder, post-partum depression and actual mental illness. Treatments covered a wide variety of sometimes questionable treatments from drugs to electro-shock treatments, insulin shock therapy, lobotomies and deep brain stimulation. But what seemed clear was regardless of what brought a person into the institution, many did not leave other than in a pine box.

I’m not sure why this new finding has peaked my interest. Lora Cornelia isn’t in my direct line, though she is a 2nd great-aunt. This family is riddled with mysteries that I’ve struggled to find answers for. I could ignore this one and still have enough to keep me busy. Thinking about a relative spending nearly all of their adult life in Chattahoochee makes me sad, and that makes me want answers. Did she have a mental illness or was her problem something else? If she had her three boys between 1900 and 1910 they were pretty close together and there could be one or more infants that died in utero or as newborns in-between them. That would not be uncommon during the early 20th century. Either or both of these scenarios could have triggered post-partum depression. Or it could be any number of other diagnoses; real mental illness or not. I would guess that the longer a person stayed institutionalize the harder it would be to re-acclimate to the outside world.

I’ve now found her in all but the 1940 census but she was in Chattahoochee in 1930 and 1945, so it is likely she was there in 1940, though not a certainty. I’ll find the list of inmates in the census and go line by line. Her name is probably misspelled, hence she isn’t coming up in the census search at Ancestry. She inherited 40 acres from her father’s probate settlement in 1913. Did she sell that, or did her husband or children? What was her diagnosis and why was she living with her half-sister in 1920 but back in Chattahoochee in 1930 and appears to have stayed there until she died in July 1963? Someone did bring her home and bury her amongst some of her birth family. That means someone or a number of someones cared about her enough to bring her home and install a small headstone. That lightens the sadness some. The fact that she was living with her half-sister in 1920 gives me hope that the two halves of the family did have a familial connection. I wasn’t sure since the 1890 census is missing and so much of Holmes County records are as well prior to the early 1900s. And my grandmother seemed to know little about her aunts and uncles by her grandfather’s second wife.  My great-grandfather left the area when the early years of the depression began in Florida and never came back to the panhandle, dying near Ft. Myers.

Mental illness carried an awful stigma then, as it does now. I wonder if that’s why my paternal grandmother couldn’t seem to tell me much about Lora Cornelia. Did she know more but didn’t want to say or had her father just not talked about his sister? At least she told me she was related somehow which led me to figure out how she fits in the family. It is a shame we’ve progressed very little in dealing with mental illness. The failure to deal with it openly, firmly and compassionately leaves lasting wounds in our society and families. We dance around the issue and give it some lip service but mostly continue to ignore it until it hits home and then we hide it, just like our ancestors did.

I would guess many of us have ancestors, direct or collateral, that struggled with some form of mental instability or illness, whether or not they were institutionalized for it.   It might be good that “peculiar” or “unique” didn’t usually qualify or I might find a lot more of my relatives on the Chattahoochee rolls.  The early history of our country is riddled with traumas, family dysfunction, multiple deaths in a family and any number of other societal issues that might trigger a mental breakdown. Our history as it is occurring offers the same challenges. It might be good for us to come to terms with mental illness as an illness that needs attention and treatment.

Until Next Time

Resources:

  1. Out of Mind, Out of Sight: A Revealing History of the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee and Mental Health Care in Florida by Sally J. Ling.
  2. Chattahoochee, starring Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, and Frances McDormand; based on a true story from 1955.
  3. Misunderstanding Mental Health in the early-20th century 
  4. Treatment of Mental Disorders

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